Rugby Championship

Boks: Dubious front-row change?

2016-09-06 14:00
Vincent Koch (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – If tighthead prop Vincent Koch is the most endangered front-row forward in the Springbok team, then coach Allister Coetzee and his advisors run the risk of being like the plumbers who fix the wrong pipe.

Reports from Brisbane suggest that a maiden start for Lourens Adriaanse at No 3 is being considered by the Bok brains trust for the Castle Rugby Championship clash with Australia on Saturday (12:05 SA time).

If that turns out to be the case, I would argue pretty vehemently that they would be doing quite the opposite of getting their ducks in a suitable row in that area of play … they’d only be scattering them chaotically.

For me the palpable, consistent under-delivery at the heart of the engine room this year has come far more from loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira and his similarly seasoned colleague and captain at hooker, Adriaan Strauss.

Instead of these two richly experienced figures (139 caps between them) leading the forward charge, as examples to certain more rookie figures around them, they have exuded only mediocrity – sometimes at very best, frankly -- for the bulk of the five-Test season thus far.

Mtawarira has looked a particularly jaded, going-through-the-motions figure, lacking significant dynamism at scrum-time and his once-spirited, chant-inducing carries reduced, if I may stick to plumbing parlance for a second, to a mere trickle.

Strauss, meanwhile, can probably count himself fortunate that his lineout accuracy – naturally a core area for the mean wearing No 2 – has largely remained excellent for the Boks in 2016.

But he is offering little else in other facets of play and even his leadership has hardly seemed ball-of-fire stuff during a particularly stuttering campaign to this point.

Sorry, but the moment he revealed -- just as the already rather spooked Boks set off for Australasia a few days back -- that he was packing it in internationally at year’s end, should also have been the cue for Coetzee to immediately activate a Plan B with the future in mind.

It seems, instead, that Strauss will stay on for the time being for the sake of “stability” and the like … despite instability and indecisiveness having been all too obvious, general features of South Africa’s play in the three Tests against Ireland and two against Argentina.

Even if only on a caretaker basis as Coetzee awaits returns to fitness later this year -- or even next – of other contenders for the captaincy, many enthusiasts would have preferred to see the coach empower Warren Whiteley with the task of fronting the cause against the Wallabies (we might get some useful pointers to his suitability as regular skipper further down the line).

You would think with such Test novices as Bongi Mbonambi – one fleeting whiff of international combat off the bench thus far – and uncapped Malcolm Marx as the current back-ups, it is massively urgent now for the Boks to properly blood them as rapidly as possible.

While plenty of observers would be more partial to the Lions’ brawny Super Rugby standout Marx, in fairness Mbonambi should be next in line for a start at hooker as he has been the designated substitute for several Tests.

If he did crack the starting XV nod – albeit now unexpectedly, reading between the lines – for Brisbane, he would also have the advantage of throwing in at the lineout to primary jumpers Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit (if preferred to Lood de Jager) who he is well familiar with at franchise level with the Stormers.

Further, I would be hugely partial to a first-time start at this troubling juncture for Steven Kitshoff, the barrelling loosehead from Bordeaux who has looked both lively in open play and sturdy at set-piece in three appearances as a substitute – he was my Bok player-of-the-match from just 36 minutes off the splinters in the Salta defeat.

So what about the Koch case? If the tighthead curiously ends up being the lone front-ranker shafted, the Bok wise men will open themselves to rightful accusations of short memories.

Only two Tests back, the blond powerhouse answered a crisis call after just 32 minutes when Julian Redelinghuys left the Mbombela Stadium battleground through injury, and imposed himself very forcefully in the scrums.

It is true that Koch failed fairly glaringly to match such standards a week later when he started the Salta “rematch” against the Pumas, but he was certainly no worse (and perhaps a shade better) than either of Mtawarira or Strauss on that universally unedifying day for the green-and-gold cause.

He was also fingered, arguably to an excessive extent, for popping out of defensive alignment during the lead-up to one of the Pumas’ tries, although if you are going to spend too much time citing a tighthead prop for a gaffe in that area, aren’t you also covering too much for more mobile customers not cutting the mustard around him?

With the Boks having moved on now from veteran Jannie du Plessis, and with both Redelinghuys and Frans Malherbe currently unavailable, tighthead is an area that could do with a more settled feel for a few matches.

Warts and all, Koch has shown enough potential to warrant that benefit, rather than be one of the possible “fall guys” for the Wallabies date and surrender his spot to Adriaanse, who may be a decent enough scrummager but cannot hold a candle to Koch for explosive ball-carrying power near the enemy try-line.

From the available squad in Australia, this is the XV I would have liked to see deployed on Saturday, although I suspect I may not be close to seeing own wishes satisfied:

15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (capt), 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Steven Kitshoff.

It seems the actual Bok XV named on Wednesday will be closer to this:

15 Johan Goosen, 14 Bryan Habana, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Juan de Jongh, 11 Francois Hougaard/Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Francois Louw, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit/Lood de Jager, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch/Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Tendai Mtawarira.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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